Chapter 3 – February

1 February

Glad Tidings

Do you like to send out an end of year letter to your circle? If so, here’s a bad way to do it: leave it till 10 December and write down the first few things you think of which will probably be mostly from recent days.[1]

Here’s a better way to do it: at the start of every month, reflect on the interesting events of the last four weeks and make some notes about them that you can use for material later on.

So, did you do anything noteworthy in January? (I’m sure you did more than just plan next Christmas!) Start a new list and jot down the gist of your adventures[2] but do keep it short: the final product should be an amusing yarn and not an interminable chronicle.[3]

2016-02-01
A corporate Christmas tree in its native environment.

When we drove to the Mallee on Christmas Eve in 1970, we broke our journey for a packed tea: it was a magical melange of meatballs and carrots and slices of apple and four kinds of biscuit (which I realise now must have been a fridge-clearing exercise but it felt special at the time) and we finished up with chocolate milk which was quite a treat in our house. (From a thermos, of course. It doesn’t feel like an official picnic unless there’s a thermos.) Then Mum and Dad cleared up the aftermath while we children decorated a small river gum with pebble baubles and bark tinsel, and we all climbed back into the car feeling that we’d left the picnic ground well prepared for the next picnickers.

[1][1] And may not be pertinent. (My cousin Felicity’s manager Alan’s 5-page account of his office Christmas party was of doubtful interest to readers who didn’t know his colleagues… with the possible exception of libel lawyers. (He was not discreet and neither were the party guests.))

[2] Literal adventures in the case of Simon Podplann (the friend of a relative of a colleague of mine) who hit the headlines last month when he got lost in the desert due to a GPS incident: he thought he was taking a shortcut to a picnic spot outside Broken Hill but he was nearly a picnic for carrion eaters. (Mind you, he was waiting by his car for two days, with just a few litres of water and an apricot flan, so he’s not likely to forget it when he asks himself “What did I do in January?”)

[3] My cousin Steve used to send a Christmas letter that was primarily a list of scores of every match he’d played in the year, interspersed with brief remarks about last minute goals and torn hammies, but then his sister Bronwyn retaliated by sending him a list of every oven temperature she’d used for every cake she’d cooked in the year and he got the message.

2 February

Hampered

The hamper is a way of turning a bunch of everyday items into a fancy, desirable gift. Let me demonstrate:

Suppose you go to the supermarket and buy a whole lot of baby items for a pregnant friend – baby wipes, baby shampoo and so forth. If you hand them to her in the supermarket bags they came in, she could well be grateful but it will feel like you merely saved her a trip to the shops which, while practical, has no romance. But if you take exactly the same items, arrange them in a plastic baby bath, top them with a rubber duck and wrap it in cellophane, now it feels like a present.

And that’s one reason to use a hamper: to fancify something prosaic. So a housewarming present for a person who has just moved out of home could be a bucket of cleaning products with a pair of novelty rubber gloves on the top and a bow around the handle.

Hampers can also be effective if you’re not sure of someone’s preferences: for Christmas for my brother Matthew, after he’d started his articles (his first real law job), I found two pairs of Daffy Duck socks which didn’t look like enough so I added several pairs of black business socks and a couple of pairs of sports socks and bundled them together in a bag for clothes pegs… and it was the black socks he was happiest with. He explained that he was working for a very conservative law firm where you were allowed one eccentricity after five years, and two after ten and he had a long way to go before he could wear cartoon socks and that was all he owned at the time.

But the use of hampers that we will focus on in this blog is to bundle low cost items into a high value present and we’ll keep the cost low by using our own labour and we’ll concentrate on food because everybody eats. So stay tuned for hamper hints.

2016-02-02
Without the cellophane, it’s just a bag of shopping.

“It should be a good Christmas,” said my mother enthusiastically as the road wore on as we drove to the Mallee on Christmas Eve in 1970.

“That must mean that Betty is cooking and Margie isn’t,” said Dad.

Auntie Betty was a superb country cook and regularly took prizes for cakes and jam at the local show. Auntie Margie wasn’t actually bad but she preferred innovation to flavour so we were constantly surprised by cheese in her pasties, crystallised ginger in her fruit mince and once, in a decidedly unsuccessful experiment, cherries in a stroganoff. (“It’s Hungarian,” said Auntie Margie. “It’s inedible,” said Dad…  when she was out of earshot.)

Auntie Pat was a different kind of chef again. She called herself a plain cook but, while her recipes and ingredients were simple and traditional, her presentation was magnificent: lifelike radish roses bloomed in her salads, delicate pastry blackbirds sung on her apple pies and her birthday cakes were a riot of icing lace and fondant fruit. (“You should be carving tombstones,” her father said to her but he meant it as a compliment: the angels in the local cemetery were his idea of high art.)

3 February

Second time around

Giving people second hand presents can be both green and economical but you do need to be careful: some people really don’t like anything used (typically people who grew up with little money and hence have a horror of hand-me-downs) and others are okay only if everything is still bright and shiny, and then there’s a third group who lap it up.[1]

If money is not an issue and environmental concerns are, even people who don’t usually like second hand things are often happy with antiques. The trick is to know what they’re interested in (as always). So an entertainer might like an antique serving platter, a home beautiful type might like an antique vase and an amateur carpenter might like antique tools.[2]

2016-02-03
Repeat booking.

Christmas Eve 1970: We arrived in the Mallee after our bedtimes[3] but it was still light[4] and Nanna was pleased to see us and we were wildly excited. Cousin Bronwyn showed us the Christmas tree which was already surrounded by a torrent of presents, Cousin Michelle showed us the bags of lollies that were stacked in the pantry and Cousin Peter couldn’t wait to run through his repertoire of funny Christmas carols. I already knew “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” but “While Shepherds Washed Their Socks by Night” was new and I hadn’t heard “Dick and Balls and Boughs of Holly” before (and still haven’t: Nanna bustled Steve out to help Dad bring in the baggage before he could get past the first line).

[1] When my niece Emma was eight and was already a voracious reader, I asked her which she would rather: one crisp, new book or three shabby old books and she replied “three books” without a second’s hesitation. So for her Christmas present that year, I went to the local primary school fete and bought her a whole box of (carefully chosen) books for twenty dollars and she was delighted: before she even opened it, it was clear that she had the biggest, heaviest present under the tree (always a winner for eight year olds) and when she lifted the lid and saw that it was full of books, she was over the moon.

[2] I was surprised when my friend Jenny divorced her husband Richard because I had thought it was a match made in heaven: she collected antique paperweights and he collected antique display cabinets.

[3] And after spotting eighty-seven Christmas trees (although I still think that the fairy lights seen through the curtain at Bridgewater shouldn’t count: it might not have been a tree at all).

[4] I love summer.

4 February

Lighten up

If Yuletide sees your house bedecked with so many lights that it outshines the Milky Way, do think of the costs:

  • A string of 400 LED fairy lights shining for ten hours each December night will only add a dollar or two to your electricity bill[1]
  • But you should add the environmental cost of the CO2 created in the generation of the electricity
  • And the carbon cost of the manufacture of the lights
  • And the gadget miles they generated in getting to you from the factory

So ask yourself:

  • Can you achieve a better display with fewer lights? For example, by outlining the roof rather than by blanketing it in globes.[2]
  • Is it time for you to ditch energy-hungry lights?[3]
  • Are you generating any of your own electricity? If not, seriously consider changing that before December.
  • Could you have your lights on for a shorter period each night and start them later in the season?
2016-02-04
Sometimes less really is more.

I bought a new light fitting for my dining room today and the sales assistant was a lass called Seraphina who had been at high school with my son Jeremy. She was far more interested in finding out what Jeremy was up to than in demystifying me about lux, lumens and LEDs but I did eventually walk out with an adequate pendant lamp (and an invitation to Seraphina’s twenty-first for Jeremy).

[1] My cousin Peter says you can reduce this by setting them to flash, rather than to shine constantly. This seems credible but Peter also says that you can reduce your heating bills by recalibrating your thermostats so that they say 23° when it’s actually only 20° so you might want to do your own research on this one.

[2] Or go low, low key and only do the letterbox.

[3] Yes.

5 February

When it comes to the crunch

If you have any festive biscuits left in your biscuit tins, it’s time to repurpose them, perhaps as apple crumble. (This crumble recipe if also useful if it’s the day before shopping day and you have too many pears left or you have some peaches that have squishy spots but are fine on the other side, or your orchard is outgunning the capacity of your fruit bowl.)

Summer Crumble

2016-02-05

Set the oven to 180°C.

Chop the fruit[1] and put it into an ovenproof dish. (How big a dish? It depends on how much fruit you have rather than how many people you’re feeding because the leftovers will freeze reasonably well.)[2]

Crumble your gingerbread into a bowl (or speculas or whatever you have) and fling in some oats and some coconut. If you have any unsalted nuts, you can chop those coarsely[3] and mix them in too and, if you don’t have enough crumble topping yet, you can add breakfast cereal.

Sprinkle the crumble on top of the fruit. You need a depth between half a centimetre and two centimetres.[4]

Cook for about 20 minutes, until the fruit is cooked through and the topping is golden brown. If the day is cool, serve it hot. If the day is hot, serve it cool. Either way, serve it with cream or ice cream or custard.[5] Tastes good, and has enough good things in it (fruit, oats, nuts) to give you some healthy points but don’t forget that it has quite a lot of sugar[6] and a bit too much fat.[7]

Christmas Eve 1970: My grandfather – Charlie Brady – had always “liked a drink” but suddenly, when my mother was three, something snapped and he became a full-blown alcoholic, ever drunk and often violent. Two years later, he staggered out of a pub and into the traffic and that was the end of him.[8] My grandmother used the insurance money to buy a big, old house on the end of a small town near Swan Hill[9] and became a piano teacher to support her young family and they lived happily ever after… They were happier than their neighbours, in fact, because they know what they’d escaped and they didn’t take their safety and their modest property for granted.

So, from the day of my grandfather’s death, Nanna’s house was totally dry and our Christmases involved fruit punch rather than champagne, and vanilla custard rather than brandy sauce and I promise you it was all good. In fact, I was eighteen before I realised that alcohol was a significant part in other people’s merry Christmases and twenty before I realised that too much alcohol played a significant part in other people’s miserable Christmases.

They remained a close family even though they didn’t remain close: Aunty Betty married a local farmer and lived just seven miles away from Nanna, but my mother moved to Melbourne when she married my father, Uncle Bill moved to New South Wales when he bought a carpentry business in Goulburn and Uncle Jim moved to Queensland when his bank promoted him to a senior job in Brisbane. And this gave me a childhood rich in week-long visits and gala reunions (and I can tell you that I didn’t miss the sherry trifles and the rum balls at all).

[1] Where appropriate: no need to chop blackberries.

[2] If you don’t think you have enough fruit, you can round it out with a tin of pie apple or peaches.

[3] Which doesn’t mean swearing while you chop… although if you cut your finger while doing it, swearing may no longer be optional.

[4] If you have too much topping, put the excess in the freezer for another day.

[5] Or, in the case of my brother Matthew when he was a growing lad – all three.

[6] Although I think a good dessert is a good reason to live, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that I eat more sugar than is good for me, and so I have been working hard to cut down.

[7] Particularly if you’re eating it with cream, ice cream and custard.

[8] Nanna’s mother had tried to persuade her to leave Charlie even before he was pickled, and I don’t know why she didn’t – but I do know that the answers to questions of domestic violence are seldom as simple as they seem to outsiders.

[9] Her own mother had kept up the insurance payments when my grandfather lost his job. If this was a detective novel instead of a Christmas blog, you would now assume that it had also been she who ran him down, but this isn’t a whodunit and they never found out who the driver was or why Charlie suddenly snapped.

6 February

The perfect  Christmas

I hear people talking about “the perfect Christmas” and I think it’s a dangerous idea: I’m all for having a good Christmas but, if you try to make it ideal, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Similarly, if you want this year to be “the best Christmas ever” you’re putting the bar so high[1] that it’s like you’ve asked Santa for trouble, rather than for a bike.

So rethink: wouldn’t it be great if this was a good Christmas, even if it’s not quite perfect? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if this became one of the lovely Christmases you remember fondly, rather the absolute best Christmas ever?

You will (deity willing) have many, many Christmases ahead of you so don’t set them in competition against each other: instead see each as a tile in an ever-growing mosaic of seasonal joy.

2017-02-06
A bit wonky, but still worthwhile.

[1] Unless your merry Christmases have been so few that anything that doesn’t involve a trip to the hospital will eclipse them.

7 February

The ghost of Christmas Past

Yesterday, we spoke of being trapped by the idea of a perfect Christmas. Today let’s think about how Christmas changes constantly and realise that the ghost of Christmas Past is a ghost and you can’t bring it back to life.

You may remember the Christmas when you were four and there were cousins everywhere and Santa came and everything was madly exciting. By the time you were twelve, it was still madly exciting but you had a handle on the traditions and you were expected to clear dishes and help little Emily with her new bike. But eventually, extended family Christmases break into sub-family Christmases[1] so, depending on how much your family spreads out, you may have a few years as a young adult where there are no children around and you can be sophisticated and have canapés and cocktails in the afternoon. But then your own kids arrive and you’re assembling trampolines at midnight. Then, in the blink of an eye, they grow up and you’ve got enough time to cook fancy desserts. Next, your kids leave home and you have the leisure to embroider festive table runners. And somewhere in there, the feast gets a bit too much for your aged mother and so you rotate the day between your siblings’ houses. Christmas is a slowly turning wheel and every decade is different so never expect that you can freeze it in time and endlessly repeat it: instead move with the beat and work with what you have, not with what you had.

And do appreciate today’s gifts: if you’ve got three children under five, enjoy the joy and forget the mess. And if you have to drive a long way on Christmas morning to pick up your elderly parents, be thankful for that too: my mother died suddenly at the age of sixty-one and my father died of grief three months later, so one Christmas Mum was cooking pudding while Dad was extending the dining table, and the next, Wendy and Matthew and I were trying to work out how to stuff a turkey by ourselves. Be merry with what you have and treat your Christmas Present as a Christmas present.

2016-02-07
Here today, gone tomorrow.

[1] Usually when the grandparents die, or when your own parents become grandparents.

8 February

That’s entertainment

Another line item in your budget that can inflate to Zeppelin proportions is Christmas entertainments, which can include:

  • End of year shindigs for workplaces, schools and sports and social clubs
  • December gatherings with friends and family

If you can influence the agenda, consider:

  • Selecting cheap and cheery venues rather than luxe and pricey ones.[1] (Check “Cheap Eats” and ask around.)
  • Running a low-cost option alongside an expensive one. (For example, have an all-you-can-drink package for those who plan to get blotto and a pay-at-the-bar alternative for those who don’t.)
  • Or dump the paid venues entirely and go for free ones: a big playground for small children, a riverside swimming hole for teenagers, a barbecue in a national park for adults. (But do have a wet weather plan.)[2]

There may be some gatherings that you can’t control and here are some ideas for keeping a lid on things at those:[3]

  • Rein in your supplemental expenses: Do you really need a new dress? Can you plan a cheaper way home than by taxi?[4]
  • Drink less, and choose cheaper drinks.[5]
  • If it’s bring-a-plate, specialise in the cheaper festive dishes. (Of which, more later.)
2016-02-08
Organising a festive gathering is no picnic… or is it?

My daughter Hannah would like to go out for dinner on her birthday but says we should keep the guest list down to herself and her brother Jeremy and my brother Matthew and me. “Twenty-five’s not a big deal,” she explained. “It’s too soon after twenty-one.”

I can see where she’s coming from: at my age, I think fifty is too soon after forty!

[1] My son Jeremy’s favourite is a local Mexican restaurant where the nachos cost peanuts. (The fact that it’s very easy to decorate a sombrero with tinsel is a bonus.)

[2] Or a lot of umbrellas.

[3] Financially, that is. Go hell-for-leather socially.

[4] My mother’s father used to go to town on horseback but it wasn’t to save money: when he’d had too much to drink, the horse remembered the way home even though Charlie didn’t.

[5] And alternate glasses of alcohol with glasses of water which is easier on both your wallet and your liver.

9 February – Shrove Tuesday

Making sense of cents

Let’s review how you can keep the costs of Christmas low:

  • Make your own cards, decorations[1] and wrapping from recycled materials
  • Share the cooking around and go with low cost festive dishes where practical[2]
  • Steer Christmas parties to the bargain basement
  • Reduce your present list and reduce the costs of each individual present (through careful shopping and by making things yourself)

So go back to your Christmas spreadsheet and adjust the figures according to your new ideas and see if you can bring the total down to a cost you’re comfortable with. If you can, rest easy (with crepes: today is Pancake Tuesday). If you can’t, cut again until you can.

2016-02-09

Hannah asked me to add another person to her birthday dinner reservation: her new boyfriend.

“Stay calm, Mum,” she added. “I’ve only known him a few weeks and he does have some faults so don’t put him in your address book yet.”

I won’t get excited: when people are only three weeks into a relationship, they usually don’t notice faults at all, even if their new love smells like a warthog and keeps severed feet in a jar in the bathroom. This guy doesn’t sound like a keeper.

[1] I know you can’t make fairy lights from recycled materials but one New Year’s Eve, my niece Emma melted down the dozens of half-used birthday candles she found in the kitchen cupboard and turned them into one big candle that she burned through to the New Year (which was a custom my Nanna used to follow. I think it was supposed to bring good luck) but it did feel a little spooky: it was like all of our birthdays and all of our years of life were going up in smoke.

[2] This is a thing my daughter Hannah’s friend Lachlan is good at: he’ll snap up bargain strawberries at the market at the end of the day and make strawberry gelato for not much more than the cost of the sugar. He’s also a whiz at turning wilted herbs into green goddess dressing, sour cream into pastry and a single sausage into an exciting pasta sauce. Hannah says it’s his superpower.

10 February

Going (Christmas) clubbing

Now that you have recalculated how much Christmas is going to cost you, divide the amount by 45 (which is the number of weeks till Christmas)[1] and that’s the amount you need to save each week to hit your target.

Here are some of the standard Christmas saving options:

  • Some banks and credit unions offer Christmas Club accounts which discourage you withdrawing your money before November and these can be good if you need discipline, but their interest rates are seldom exciting.
  • If you can rein yourself in without help, simply use your current savings account (and reap your current interest) and keep track of how many of the dollars in the account are Christmas dollars.[2]
  • You can even use a piggy bank (and forego interest entirely) if you’re sure you will insert your weekly allocation reliably. And if you also add loose change as you go, you could end up with a little more than you budgeted.[3]

I am suspicious of organisations that take a weekly payment from you and then send you a hamper at Christmas because I can’t see that you’d get better value than if you saved up yourself and then did your own shopping. For example, I’ve just checked out a “chips and drinks” option at $3.25 over 36 weeks ($117 in total) that provides nearly nineteen litres of soft drink and two and a half kilograms of chips and I can buy exactly those same things at my local supermarket myself today for $91.56.[4] Also:

  • If you can make do with less than the hamper provides, you can spend less. (If I bought 15 litres of soft drink and a “mere” 2kg of chips in my supermarket today, my cost would be 25% lower than theirs.)[5]
  • If you buy cheaper products, you can spend less. (The house brands of those same items would cost me $55.79[6] today and you probably don’t need premium orange squash in your fruit punch.)
  • If you keep an eye out for specials, you can save more. (Chips typically have a use-by date of 2 to 3 months so you can buy them from November on and soft drink stays good forever.)[7]

So do be wary of this kind of deal and be sure it will work in your favour before you sign up.

2016-02-10
Safe as pigs.

Jeremy and I dropped in to Hannah’s flat to pick her up for her birthday dinner and there was a huge teddy bear sitting on her couch.

“Who’s that from?” asked Jeremy.

“An ex-boyfriend,” said Hannah.

I could see that Jeremy was working his way through the list of Hannah’s past romances, trying to gauge who knew her so poorly that he’d give her a big soft toy so I short-circuited things for him.

“Is that ex as of tonight?” I asked.

“Yes: you can tell the restaurant we’re back down to four,” said Hannah.

“And you dumped him because of the teddy bear?” Jeremy clarified.

Hannah didn’t bother to answer.

“He should take it back to the shop he got it from,” said Jeremy.

“I suggested that,” said Hannah, “But he said that he’d had a long conversation with the shop girl about how much his girlfriend would love the bear so he’s too embarrassed to.”

“We’ve got a spare chair at the restaurant,” said Jeremy. “You could bring it with you.”

But Hannah didn’t think that was funny.

[1] Haven’t the first six flown and aren’t you glad you’ve already started your planning!

[2] When my niece Emma was planning her wedding, her father said that, in the same way that you multiply normal years by seven to get dog years, you should multiply normal prices by four to get wedding prices. (So, if a pair of black leather sandals cost fifty dollars, then a pair of white leather sandals will cost two hundred dollars.) Using the same principle, I think that Christmas dollars are equivalent to two normal dollars in December, and about fifty cents in January.

[3] My cousin Peter was good at saving his pocket money up for big ticket toys and, the year he was nine, he calculated exactly how long it would take till he could afford the construction kit he yearned for and was annoyed when he counted his hoard on the big shopping day and found he had overshot. (His mother had deposited the coins she found in the house and, had Peter known that, he could have bought his Lego three weeks earlier.)

[4] I took my laptop, entered shelf prices and crunched the numbers with a spreadsheet. Passing shoppers gave me some very odd looks but I am willing to suffer in the name of accuracy for you, my dear reader.

[5] And my consumption of sugar, salt and fat would be lower too.

[6] Which is less than half of what they’re charging.

[7] Or, more accurately, doesn’t get any worse over time.

11 February

Green wrapping paper

It’s only people who lived through the Depression who think that it’s okay to reuse wrapping paper (and they’re thin on the ground now) but there are other recycled options:

  • Brown paper
  • Newspaper – dense print with few headlines is best. (Classified ads used to be perfect but they’re thin on the ground now too. Form guides are a reasonable substitute and Chinese newspapers are superb.)
  • Maps (You may not have any of these lying around but pages from old street directories are excellent for little gifts.)
  • Sheet music (Again, most people don’t have spare sheet music but, if you play saxophone in the local band, you just might.)[1]
  • Children’s paintings (They don’t have to come from your own children!)

Tie brown paper and sheet music with something colourful but maps and paintings will be bright enough already.

2016-02-11
A map – a wrap? A snap!

Now I have a giant teddy bear sitting in my lounge room: Hannah asked me to take it to an op shop for her.

“Why not give it to Poppet?” Jeremy had asked, thinking of their little half-sister.

“Because Caitlin would never forgive me,” Hannah replied, thinking of their stepmother’s aversion to the ever-growing mountain of shonky toys that accumulates around children if you turn your back for a second.[2]

[1] Or if you tidy up after the local band: my cleaner used to do the town hall after the choir had been in and she wrapped all of her presents in discarded SATB scores. (They were occasionally embellished with hand written notes to “Sing up!” or “Watch conductor like a hawk!” but she said that added to the authenticity.)

[2] Which is the other reason for not turning your back on children: the first is that they’re in self-destruct mode and are just waiting for you to be distracted for long enough so that they can stick their fingers in the closest power point. It’s their mission in life.

12 February

Cracking up

Christmas crackers:

  • are fun
  • can be a colourful or classy or quirky part of your table decoration[1]
  • make the Christmas feast stand out from the other feast days in the year[2]
  • are entirely devoid of religion so they can be used by all feasters at Christmas time

However:

  • they’re either expensive or tacky[3]
  • the jokes are awful
  • practically no-one will wear the stupid hats, and they seldom fit those who will
  • the trinkets are usually odd things you don’t want

The solution: make your own to improve:

  • The quality of the trinkets
  • The freshness of the jokes[4]
  • The stylishness of the hats
  • The appearance of the crackers and how well they match your table decor

You can keep the costs low (both economically and environmentally) but you can’t get them down to zero so, if your budget is very, very tight, give crackers a miss[5] but, if you can spare a little money, you can produce excellent crackers.

So here are today’s tasks:

  • Work out how many crackers you’ll need
  • Decide what you’re willing to spend on them
  • Decide whether you’ll make or buy
2016-02-12
This is a small, rubbery crab that I got in a Christmas cracker. Only someone under three could possibly find it appealing – and for them it would be a choking hazard.

And I have an extra task myself today: the electrician came this morning and installed my new dining room light but he managed to knock a hole in the ceiling so he’s sending a plasterer mate around and I need to arrange a convenient time. (I am irrationally annoyed that the electrician didn’t bring the plasterer when he came himself which would have saved us all some effort, but I guess it would actually have been worse if the electrician had predicted he’d damage the ceiling but hadn’t been bothered to prevent it.)

[1] Choose the option you like best.

[2] So do truly heroic quantities of food.

[3] And far too often both.

[4] It’s difficult to guarantee the hilarity of the jokes since senses of humour vary so widely. (My Uncle Bill, for example, still thinks it’s funny to pull a little girl’s pigtail and ask “How’s your boyfriend?” This used to disconcert my sister Wendy but I’d just say “Which one?” and that shut him up.)

[5] Or ask someone else to provide them.

13 February

Op shop till you drop

If you have anyone on your present list who is happy to receive second-hand presents, here are some things you can reasonably expect to find at op shops:

  • Books… if they’re keen readers of a genre that people whip through at a rate of knots (detective novels and romances being key examples) you may be able to snap up as many as twenty with little effort and minimal cost.[1]
  • China and glassware… if they like quirky, individual pieces. (Again you need to know their tastes here.)[2]
  • Jigsaws… if you like jigsaws yourself (Because it’s a real gamble buying these from op shops so it’s best if you do the puzzle yourself first to make sure you have all the pieces. Again, at op shop prices, you can probably afford to buy a few of these and there will be plenty so don’t just grab the first you see: wait till you find one with a particularly good picture.)[3]
  • Toys… avoid cheap plastic toys and nasty soft toys[4] but you can usually find good quality toys too (In particular, it’s a buyer’s market for second hand bears, so you can get high quality teddies in near mint condition for just a few dollars which would be perfect for small children…. except that small children receive their bodyweight in teddy bears every year and really don’t need any more.)

The thing about op shops is that you can’t rely on them having anything in particular so if you go to just one, the chances are they won’t have what you want. So instead you can do an op shop crusade and go to every op shop in your area[5] or you can go back to your closest op shop at regular intervals to check the new arrivals.

So if you’re planning to give people op shop presents, start early and go often.

2016-02-13
Rescuing (toy) dogs at your local op shop.

My office is on the verge of an uprising because Donna has mucked up three people’s birthday cakes in a row. (I don’t know why she insists on being in charge when she couldn’t organise a round of applause. She should accept her weaknesses and stick to her strengths. (Surely she has some, although snarky comments and bitter jibes are the only ones that come to my mind immediately.))

[1] My sister Wendy once found a large cache of current whodunnits at her local op shop but, before she paid for them, she discovered that the last chapter had been ripped out of each. “There are vandals who disrespect property by tagging people’s fences,” she said with disgust, “There are vandals who endanger our safety by ruining road signs, but the most despicable of all is this person who has destroyed the innocent pleasure of a teacher who educates other people’s little darlings all day and just wants to unwind at night with murder, criminals and buckets of blood”.

[2] You also need to know how to wrap breakables or else you might be giving them a handful of shards.

[3] My mother liked jigsaws but she once put the last piece into a dull picture of a grey church on a winter’s day and said “Why did I bother?”

[4] My son Jeremy had a plush bandicoot with a disturbing squint and an evil leer. If you live near me, you may find it in your closest op shop because it didn’t last long at my place and I doubt anyone would have ever taken it home to theirs.

[5] Once a month, my friend Jill does an op shop tour with her pal Bernadette. They treat it as a catch-up and they have lunch at their favourite café and they both now have very impressive collections of twentieth century literature but Jill’s children have banned her from bringing home any more ornamental owls.

14 February – St Valentine’s Day

Say cheese… cake

If you were going to make a special dessert today (because sugar goes with sweethearts),[1] consider using up the biscuit crumbs you froze after Christmas by making a crumb crust for a fancy cheesecake.

Here’s my favourite cheesecake recipe – make it with strawberry yoghurt if you have chocolate crumbs, apricot yoghurt if you have gingerbread crumbs and any yoghurt that takes your fancy if you have vanilla crumbs.

Strawberry Cheesecake

2016-02-14

SERVES : 8
START : the day before
PREPARATION TIME : 5 + 20 + 5 minutes

3 tbs butter                              500g cream cheese                   ¼ cup brandy[2]

200g biscuit crumbs              ¾ cup castor sugar                   200ml strawberry yoghurt

2 eggs                                        1 tbs cornflour

GARNISH: whipped cream and strawberries

 

Melt the butter, stir in biscuit crumbs and press into the base of a 20cm springform pan. Refrigerate.

Set oven to 150°C. Separate the eggs.

Blend the cream cheese with half a cup of sugar until smooth. Add egg yolks and beat thoroughly. Blend cornflour with brandy and add to mixture with yoghurt.

Beat egg whites with remaining sugar until stiff peaks form. Gently fold into cheese mixture.

Pour into the prepared crust and bake for 45 minutes. Turn the oven off and leave undisturbed for a further hour. Chill thoroughly and decorate with whipped cream and fruit.

Speaking of love, I don’t speak of love with my book club friend Sharon (who is quite reserved so we mostly discuss books and social politics) but I have deduced from her comments on the romances in our literary choices that she had a terribly deep and terribly sad love affair a decade ago. (I’d like to ask her if she thinks it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all but I can’t because I don’t officially know anything about her love life.)[3]

[1] One Valentine’s Day, Matthew made a chocolate cake for his partner Dharma and received in return a bitter tirade on the damage sugar does to teeth. He later realised that this was the first sign that she was having an affair with her dentist.

[2] Or green ginger wine if you’re going with the apricot / ginger combo.

[3] For the record, my own marriage gave me my two beloved children so I don’t regret it for a second and, even if you take Hannah and Jeremy out of the equation, the first few years were so wonderful that I side with Cupid even though my love affair ended as a hate affair.

15 February

Yule love it

If you’re taking Christmas seriously, I think it helps to be well-versed in Christmas history: it will let you sort religious elements from secular pastimes, give context to your traditions and may also provide ideas for new family frivolities. (We played “Hide the Yule goat” last Advent (of which more later) and it was such fun we’ll do it this year too.)

 

2016-02-15
I see you!

So I’ll take you on a walk through the meanings of Christmas (that’s a deliberate plural: there’s not just one meaning… and it’s not all Christian) and I’d like to do it on Monday which is the start to the working week (for many of us) and a good time to take new information on board and to make new plans.

So here’s Lesson One – Yule.

Although “yuletide” is often used as a synonym for “Christmas”, Yule is actually a midwinter festival celebrated by Germanic pagans[1] with drinking, feasting and the sacrifice of boars (the last two elements of which come together very neatly in roast pork). It runs for three days or twelve days or a month, depending on who you talk to and is a snowy celebration of Odin’s wild hunt across the sky.

It is said that King Haakon converted Norway to Christianity in the tenth century of the common era and that he rescheduled Yule to correspond with Christmas as a cunning (and successful) ploy to get everyone celebrating at the same time. And it is indeed the adoption of pagan practices by Christians that sees Yule logs burnt in Christian fireplaces on 25 December and the Yule boar being eaten to this day as the Christmas ham.[2]

[1] Which includes ancient Scandinavians, Icelanders, Dutch folk and the Anglo-Saxons (who gave us words like “beserk”, “ransack” and “frumbyrdling” (a youth growing his first beard)).

[2] That’s not exactly the same boar, of course. Even in the most economical of households, it wouldn’t have lasted that long.

16 February

Wishing well

Now that you have your present list and your budget, jot down any thoughts you have for presents for particular people. You may not have many yet but you can often collect enough ideas through the year so that the actual shopping is easy. (Or mostly easy. I don’t know what my brother-in-law Don likes[1] and I seldom get inspiration throughout the year.)

So listen when people talk about books they’d like to read and when they admire other people’s things or express a need for a really good vegetable peeler, and then jot the ideas down in your present list[2] as soon as you can sneak away and do so.

 

2016-02-16
She said she wanted cake forks.

I always give my friend Sharon books, and that’s easy because we’re in a book club together so I know her literary preferences very well.

When I dropped Sharon home after book club tonight, she invited me in to give me some jam[3] and continued to talk about “Penelope’s Sandals” and I realised that its underlying theme of bone-deep loneliness had resonated with her. I have assumed that Sharon was happy alone and it looks like I’m wrong, and I’m sad that she’s sad.

[1] Apart from cheesecake. And you can’t give someone cheesecake as a Christmas present.

[2] Provided they’re practical. Jack has mentioned that he’d like a jet pack for his eighteenth birthday and although that might not lose me a nephew, it would certainly lose me a sister!

[3] If you’ve ever thought, “I won’t make jam because I really don’t want three kilograms of the same stuff”, think again: if you give a jar of your nectarine jam to all the jam-makers you know, they’ll return the favour in kind when their own fruit comes in and you’ll end up with a pantry full of peach and plum and melon-and-pineapple.

17 February

Biscuit tin wrapping

One Christmas Day, when I looked at the huge pile of shredded paper that had been the pretty wrapping of a treeful of presents an hour before but was now just a heap of junk, I thought that there had to be a better way… and what I hit upon was biscuit tins.

So I snapped up the Christmas biscuit tins I found at op shops[1] and that’s what I put the next year’s presents in. Here are the advantages:

  • A second hand tin is very green because you’re not using up new materials and you can reuse it later.
  • It was a beautifully festive stack of presents (angels, gingerbread houses and reindeer galore)[2]
  • Some people were happy to keep the tin[3] and considered it a supplementary present and some handed their tin back to me to be used again the next year. (Both options are good.)
  • If you like to frustrate present prodders, using a tin is a good way to ensure they can’t feel what they’re getting in advance.

Here are the disadvantages:

  • Although you can keep your average tin price under 50c and this compares favourably with expensive paper and ribbons, it’s not the cheapest option.
  • Some things don’t fit into even the biggest tin.[4]
  • It frustrates present prodders but it plays into the hands of people who cheat: they can easily lift the lid and see what’s inside when no-one else is around.[5]

If you’d like to give this a shot, start checking op shops well ahead of time. (Now is not too early.)

2016-02-17
Putting a lid on it.

To the relief of everyone in my office, Donna has announced that she has found a new job and is leaving as soon as she’s served her notice. But my boss Catherine told Donna that’s it’s okay to go on Friday (and I suspect it’s because Catherine’s own birthday is next week and she’s afraid of the cake roster.)

[1] And they’re plentiful: I didn’t have to look hard.

[2] So I found designs for Christians and non-Christians alike but it’s much harder to cater for people with impeccable taste than for those who like cute things!

[3] Matthew gave Auntie Helen hankies last year and Wendy gave her a lavender bag and she bundled them together into my holly tin and put them straight in her drawer when she got back to the nursing home, but she left the embroidery kit I’d given her under her chair: I guess she liked the tin holding the present better than the present itself! (I worked out later that the problem was that she was no longer confident with a needle. I should have gone with talking books.)

[4] I solved this by putting a note in the tin saying, “Look in the laundry”.

[5] And thwarting this by adding a motion sensor seems like overkill.

18 February

Were you expecting it gift wrapped?

Is it too early to mastermind the wrapping of your Christmas presents?[1] Of course not! If you decide on a wrapping scheme now, you’ll be well-positioned to snap up any wrapping opportunities that come your way (like haberdashery[2]  sales of star-spangled ribbon).

Take into account your preferred colour scheme and style[3] and the volume of presents you’re expecting and this may lead you to the answer immediately. Maybe:

  • You so long to wrap presents in purple paper and tie them with pink satin ribbon that you can hardly wait for Christmas
  • Or you have plenty of holly paper from last year and pine bough paper from the year before and you think you could bring them together by bedecking everything with scarlet curling ribbon[4]
  • Or you’ve already bought silver bauble paper in the sales and you’d like to use actual silver baubles for gift tags and you’re tossing up between black ribbon and white string.

If you know what you want and you don’t have what you need, add the missing items to your Christmas shopping list. (You are, of course, unlikely to find cheap silver baubles[5] right now but plain purple paper, scarlet curling ribbon and white string could be offered for an excellent price at any time.)

If you don’t have any ideas yet, take inspiration from any pretty presents you see[6] and if you need a zero cost solution, stay tuned.

2016-02-18
Or just leave it to the professionals.

My book club friend Sharon spoke more about loneliness today (abstractly of course – not in direct connection with herself) and I do think she’s concerned about it. So I mentioned the local artists’ hub and Sharon said that she’s a solo artist who doesn’t like to chat about her work and, since we weren’t officially discussing her own loneliness, I couldn’t say that this was clearly part of her problem.

[1] If I haven’t persuaded you to use biscuit tins, that is.

[2] “Haberdashery” is one of my favourite words (beaten only by “confetti” and “dollop” and “pixies”).

[3] My nephew Ben once tied a present for his father with octopus straps. The ocky straps were, in effect, part of the present and Don appreciated them but they played merry hell with the wrapping paper. (Perhaps Ben should have used a tarp instead of candy-striped tissue paper.)

[4] Scarlet curling ribbon is what my daughter Hannah used to make herself a clown wig for a primary school concert. It kept her busy for days and she was even prouder of it than she was of singing a solo in “Let the circus begin”.

[5] Mind you, baubles are one of those items that suffer reverse inflation and just keep getting cheaper, even when you buy them at RRP. (Computers and clothing are two other examples and children’s clothes have become so cheap that I’m expecting the shops to pay the customers for them any day now.)

[6] In real life, in magazines, in shop windows – wherever stylish people wrap.

19 February

Hedgehog

If you have any shortbread left, why not turn it into hedgehog?[1]

(And if you like the recipe, hang onto it because hedgehog makes a good Small Present.)

Hedgehog

2016-02-19

MAKES : 24
START : 3 hours before
PREPARATION TIME : 20 + 5 + 5 minutes

185g butter                                           ¾ cup chopped nuts (eg: walnuts, macadamias)

¾ cup castor sugar                              2 eggs

4 tbs cocoa                                            125g chocolate

375g biscuits (eg shortbread)            1 tbs rum

Line a 18cm x 28cm slice tin with baking paper.

Melt 125g butter[2] with the sugar and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Mix in cocoa and then stir over heat until smooth.

Break the biscuits into small pieces and put into a bowl with the nuts. Beat the eggs lightly.

Stir eggs into butter mixture and then pour over the biscuits and nuts. Mix very well and then press firmly into the tin. Chill.

Melt the chocolate with 60g butter and the rum. Spread over the hedgehog, refrigerate until set and then cut into squares.

My boss Catherine came up to me today and said that she was about to make a request that she would deny ever having mentioned, but could I bring a cake in on Monday to celebrate the absence of Donna?  We agreed that the inscription “Happy days!” should serve the purpose without being too blatant.[3]

[1] I made hedgehog once for a visiting Englishman who was horrified. It didn’t occur to me that he would think it contained meat.

[2] Note: this is not all of the butter.

[3] So I can’t cook hedgehog. Delicious though it is, one simply doesn’t inscribe it.

20 February

Not out in the backyard

Christmas morning usually takes care of itself: presents, festive greetings, church (or not), morning tea and getting ready for the feast seem to occupy everyone nicely. But once Christmas dinner is eaten and the dishwasher is humming, there can be quite a while before the next meal and the queen’s Christmas message (or not). If everyone is happy to snooze or play with their toys or laze around cracking walnuts and jokes, that’s great but, if they need to be amused (or if you want to keep people out of trouble),[1] I do have a bunch of ideas.

The first one is the Australian classic: backyard cricket. Now I’m not a huge fan of hitting balls with bats myself, but there’s a good chance some of the people at your gathering think it’s delightful so if it isn’t already a standing tradition[2] for you, perhaps you could add it to your agenda.

I believe the rules are the trickiest part so discuss, agree and document them (and then keep the paperwork for next year). Here are some common rules:

  1. No golden ducks: you can’t go out on the first ball.
  2. Six and out: if you hit the ball over the fence:
    1. You get 6 runs
    2. You’re out
    3. You have to retrieve the ball
  3. One hand, one bounce: you can catch the batter out if you catch the ball with one hand after one bounce. (In some households, this only applies if you’re holding a drink in the other hand.)

And you’ll probably need some specific local rules too. (I can tell you that anyone who hits a ball into my raspberry patch will not be getting raspberries for dessert.)

2016-02-20
Over and out.

I finally dropped Hannah’s giant teddy off at an op shop today. I put it into the passenger seat and belted it in to stop it lunging for me at every corner and a chap I parked next to said “Trying to qualify for the car-pooling lane, are you?” and I was quite embarrassed.

[1] If you want to get people into trouble just follow the example my brother Matthew set when he gave all of his small nieces and nephews water pistols.

[2] Or a running tradition.

21 February

It’s a wrap

If you plan to make your own wrapping paper to save money, do make sure that your materials aren’t expensive. Check out:

  • What cheap paper can you get hold of? (Butcher’s paper? Tissue paper?)[1]
  • Do you already have materials you could decorate it with? (Paint,[2] crayons, glue?) If not, what can you get at low cost?

Taking the answers into account, here are some simple designs that can be executed by people who don’t think of themselves as artists:

  • Stripes (Even if you’re not neat, these always look good if you use a broad paintbrush and a bold hand.)
  • Christmas trees (Go for simple green triangles if you’re daunted by conifer shapes, and decorate them with coloured dots.)
  • Stencilled stars
  • Words (Write “Merry Christmas” or “Season’s Greetings”[3] in thick green felt pen on pale green paper.)
  • Glitter (Use a glue stick to make swirls of sticky stuff, sprinkle with glitter and shake off the excess.)[4]

(If you’d like your children to make the wrapping paper, we’ll talk about that later.)

 

2016-02-21
Strident stripes.

My book club friend Sharon invited me round today because she wanted my advice.

“I’ve been lonely,” she began.

I immediately thought, “She’s going to ask me about on-line dating and I haven’t got a clue!”

“And I’ve decided to get a cat,” she continued. “Do you think I should adopt an abandoned cat from an animal shelter or buy a kitten?”

I didn’t have much to offer[5] but I listened to the ideas she’d had for reducing the environmental impact of pets and she was quite happy with that.

[1] When my nephew Ben worked at the local cinema, he used to bring home outdated movie posters which were fabulous: big, colourful and interesting. (The girlfriend he brought home from the local cinema was also big, colourful and interesting but she didn’t last long: apparently, she couldn’t reconcile her flamboyance with his I.T. interests.)

[2] My sister Wendy’s kids made excellent wrapping paper in shades of lemon and royal blue the year she painted her lounge room in lemon and royal blue. This was not a coincidence.

[3] Or even “Pudding time!”

[4] And then spend the next five years vacuuming it out of your carpet. But at least it’s a pretty mess.

[5] I’m not a cat lover but I stress that that doesn’t make me a cat hater. It’s just that I feel about cats the way they seem to feel about humans: I don’t mind if there’s one in the room, provided they’re not sitting on my favourite cushion.

22 February

And so it came to pass

Here’s a brief précis of the Christian Christmas story: God impregnated Mary but her cuckolded finance Joseph married her anyway and, when she was nine months’ pregnant, they travelled to Bethlehem to take part in a census.[1] All of the accommodation was booked out but an innkeeper allowed them to stay in his stable and Jesus was born there and put into a manger[2] as a crib. Angels appeared to local shepherds to tell them that the messiah had arrived[3] and so they went to the stable to worship the babe that night. God also put a new star in the sky to announce Jesus’s birth,[4] three wise men from the East followed the star to Jesus and they brought with them presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh.[5]

And this is important because Jesus grew up to be the Christ who preached the gospel which became the theology of the Christian church.

So if you’re pointedly non-Christian, you’ll want to give nativity scenes a miss, including:

  • babies in mangers
  • stables
  • stabled animals (typically a donkey and an ox)
  • shepherds and sheep
  • haloes

(Of course, if you’re not putting up a nativity scene in your own house, that doesn’t mean you have to shun nativity scenes wherever else you find them. Even if you object to particular preachings of a particular Christian church, babies are still cute and we can respect people who celebrate cornerstone events in their own religions.)

 

2016-02-22
Four barnyard creatures, three foreign monarchs, two holy parents and a manager with a swaddled Christ child.

[1] It was touch-and-go whether the holy family would count as two or three.

[2] A manger is a trough animals eat from but the only time this word appears is at Christmas (so your spell-checker is likely to correct it to “manager”, which seldom makes sense.)

[3] Which must have been a surprise: I doubt the shepherds expected to be on the A-list for divine births.

[4] Sky-writing hadn’t been invented.

[5] Although baby clothes may have been more practical than perfumes.

23 February

Treasure chest

A present box is a box of presents that you’ve bought well in advance: perhaps because you chanced across something just perfect for a particular person or perhaps because you found a stunning bargain.[1] It can save you money and it can save you time in the hectic days of Christmas shopping.[2] So always keep your eyes open for presents for people on your present list.

But here are some traps to avoid:

  • Don’t buy something for someone ahead of time if there’s a chance they’ll acquire it for themselves before Christmas.[3]
  • Don’t buy anything at all ahead of time for pre-schoolers because their passions change in a heartbeat: today Dora the Explorer may be all they think about but, come Christmas, they may have moved onto Thomas the Tank.
  • Be very careful with generic presents: if you find a lovely nut dish and think it will do for someone, it’s going to be a waste of money unless you do actually give it to someone.[4]

So do keep a list of the gifts you have in your present box and who you’re thinking of giving them to: it will protect you from buying too many moustachioed articles for Jordan and more salad bowls than you have sisters.

 

2016-02-23
Something for everyone.

My colleague Murray asked me for the recipe of the “Happy days” cake I cooked: he said he wanted to extend his culinary repertoire. So I printed off a copy immediately and he read it through carefully and said “What does ‘cream the butter and sugar’ mean?”

“Have you cooked a cake before?” I asked.

“No,” he replied, “But how hard can it be?”

Now, I don’t think cakes are particularly hard, but there are a few things you need to know so I started to tell him about sifting ingredients and greasing tins and he was nodding and saying “Yes, yes” when I think he should really have been saying, “I didn’t quite get that”. So I ended up offering him a cake lesson and we’ve decided to do it next Thursday.

[1] My cousin Russell found his all-time favourite barbecue tools at 90% off one lucky day so he bought six sets. He gave one to his sister and one to his best friend and has kept the remaining four for himself as spares, but I’m pretty sure he’ll wear out before they do.

[2] So can frozen pizzas, but there’s no need to go that far.

[3] Before we trained him out of it, my brother-in-law Don had an irritating habit of announcing which tools and CDs and golfing gadgets he’d like for Christmas, and then buying most of them for himself in mid-December.

[4] This is False Bargain #2 (of which more later).

24 February

Op shop crops

Here is a list of things you may be looking for in op shops:

  • Presents for people who like second hand things (and you may have some specifics here, like detective novels or pretty teacups)[1]
  • Christmas tins (if that’s the way your wrapping plan goes)[2]
  • Consider looking for trinkets for crackers if you’ll be making your own – little toys, a “diamond” necklace, a silver sugar spoon and so on
2016-02-24
Wheat-etched glasses: stemware twice over.

My daughter Hannah and her friend Lachlan[3] give each other an op shop present every Christmas: last year she gave him a huge soft-toy palm tree and he gave her a foot stool painted like a ladybird with disconcerting googly eyes (and they both exclaimed that they couldn’t understand how the original owner could bear to part with such a treasure but they say that every year: it’s part of the ritual).

[1] My wheat-farming Aunt Betty liked wine glasses etched with ears of wheat which were fashionable back in the 60s and are fairly easy to find in op shops. (They’re also fairy easy to break, particularly if you have a tile floor in your kitchen and a husband more accustomed to handling sheep than stemware so Auntie Betty needed a constant supply of them and was happy for me to give her more every time I visited.)

[2] Or if you’ve got a lot of Yuletide ephemera and you need to control it.

[3] Hannah met Lachlan in her first year of uni and he’s my favourite of all her friends: smart but not pretentious, easy-going but not lazy, interested in everything in the world but he doesn’t ambush you with long tales of strange hobbies. She brought him home quite a lot in first year and when she started taking him to family gatherings, I smelled romance but she explained that he was a country boy who’d moved to the city for uni and was missing normal family life. We’ve seen Lachlan reasonably often ever since then and he improves on closer acquaintance. (Also, he often brings a dessert and, even though I’ve ratcheted my sugar intake back a few notches, that’s still a sure way to my heart.)

25 February

Treed

There are many options for Christmas trees:

  1. living[1]
  2. lopped
  3. artificial
  4. abstract
  5. virtual

The greenest option (which is actually even greener than not having a tree at all) is to grow a tree native to your area in a pot and then plant it in the garden when Christmas is over. Nearly as green is to grow an appropriate pine tree in a pot and to use the same one each year.[2] Chopping down a pine tree can also be fairly friendly if it isn’t transported from too far to get to you and if you mulch it afterwards.[3]

I confess that I was permanently put off artificial Christmas trees by my Nanna’s monster. Always an early adopter, she had a fake tree in the sixties and it was a scrawny silver tinsel construction which was gaudy by itself and was then bedaubed with fluoro baubles and weird flocked plastic shapes allegedly representing boots and houses. But I do admit that it is possible to get nice artificial trees and, if your grandmother’s taste was better than mine, you may consider this an acceptable option.

2016-02-25
Probably a silver fir.

I have discovered that it’s quite hard to cook a cake in an office: I did bring in my mixer and a cake tin (Murray brought the ingredients) but I didn’t think of a scraper and we ended up using a folded scarf as a pot holder. But the cake itself was a success and my colleagues were delighted to come back from lunch to find hot hazelnut torte waiting for them.

[1] Typically a confier, but it doesn’t have to be, and lilly pillies are sometimes used in Queensland. (Yes it’s lilly pillies willy nilly in the North.)

[2] If you start small, you should easily get a decade out of it. (My friend Jenny is still going with the tree that she bought twenty years ago but that’s because she planted it next to her deck and she has a good ladder.)

[3] A local gardening company has a big wood chipper that they tow from job to job and it has a slogan on the side that says “It’s not mulch, but it’s a start” which annoys me every time I see it because it is mulch.

26 February

Eating weeds

If you have access to a thriving blackberry patch, you can make blackberry jam for just the cost of the sugar and then you’ll have a hearty supply for Small Presents and/or hampers, but do make sure that the plants haven’t been sprayed.[1]

 

2016-02-26
Scrumptious, black-hearted and prickly… just like a boyfriend I had for a (very) short time.

Murray took a second run at the hazelnut torte at lunchtime today but he did it by himself and it flopped. We held a post incident review and I worked out that he hadn’t beaten the eggs enough and didn’t have the oven at the right temperature. He was surprised to find those things matter: it seems his culinary repertoire is primarily sausages and curry and (and, on occasion, curried sausages) which are much more forgiving. (But we cut the cake into slabs, poured custard over it and called it pudding and our colleagues still enjoyed it).

[1] I did once have to ring the poisons hotline when I spotted the warning sign after I’d spent half an hour picking fruit… and eating the squashed ones. (FYI: The herbicide remaining on a handful of berries is unlikely to make you sick but it hurts to have to throw out two kilograms of beautiful berries.)

27 February

It’s a charade

A classic English pastime for Christmas afternoon is charades and, although Brits find it works well inside on a cold and gloomy day, it can also be pleasant on the lawn on a warm and sunny day in our hemisphere. It has nearly as many rule variations as backyard cricket but here’s a set you can work with as a starting point.

  1. The first player chooses the title of a film, book or TV show. (Or has it chosen for them. Or you play as teams, not individuals. And you can add play titles, common phrases and single words so long as you can convey these options to the guessers.)
  2. The presenter then mimes that title, typically word-by-word, using a standard set of hand gestures to communicate things like “film”, “first word”, “second syllable”, “sounds like” and “correct”, and their own peculiar set of facial expressions and grimaces to communicate “nearly there,” and “not even close, you idiots”.
  3. The other players guess the individual pieces and may shout out the full title as soon as they can guess it.[1]
  4. The person who wins becomes the next presenter. (Or you take it in turns.)

Scoring is unnecessary, haphazard and divisive and is not recommended.

 

2016-02-27
Fourth word, first syllable, rhymes with “frock”.

My sister Wendy finally returned my blow-up crocodile today,[2] on her way home from lunch at her mother-in-law’s house.

“Gertruda asked Emma and me which of her pieces of jewellery we liked the best,” said Wendy, “And then she wrote the answers down in a little notebook.”

“Do you think she’s getting her affairs in order?” I asked.

“Yes. I’m wondering if she’s had a bad diagnosis.”

“Why don’t you ask her?” I suggested.

“I did,” she replied, “But she wouldn’t discuss her health and Getruda only discusses topics Gertruda chooses to talk about.”

“I’ve noticed that,” I remarked.

“I’ve had thirty years of it,” she replied, but she refused to be drawn any further.

[1] Theoretically, it could be spoken but, in practice, it is always shouted.

[2] She intended to do it earlier but she knew it wasn’t urgent (now that I have a flamingo) and she kept finding extra uses for it. First it was for a swimming trip to the lake, then it was for an impromptu pool party Jack threw around a padding pool in the back yard, and finally she had to wrestle it off her husband who napped on it under the oak tree and claimed that ants were too scared of it to go near him.

28 February

Crafty children

Primary school children are on holiday in the last weeks of December and high school children can be on holiday from the first weeks of the month and channelling them into Christmas crafts:

  • keeps them occupied
  • maintains the Christmas buzz while reducing the Christmas craziness
  • can provide a good source of Christmas product for you[1]

so you can factor that into your plans.[2]

Children can make wrapping paper, gift tags, cards and decorations and you can find ideas for all of these to match any level of skill and artistry.[3] For example:

  • 3 year olds can put star stickers on plain coloured wrapping paper
  • 4 year olds can draw on butchers’ paper
  • 5 year olds can stamp gift tags
  • 8 year olds can make potato prints
  • 10 year olds can do origami decorations
  • 14 year olds should be able to master any craft they’re interested in (Beaded window decorations? Fretwork tree decorations? Door wreaths?)[4]

 

2016-02-28
Say it with craft glue.

Wendy rang me tonight to give me an update on her mother-in-law.

“Getruda told Ben that she’s leaving him her emerald ring and told Jack he’ll have her sapphire ring and she said that they’re for their wives.”[5]

“Definitely getting her affairs in order,” I said, “But that might not mean her days are numbered. She’s eighty: maybe she’s just well-organised.”

“Don tried talking to her,” added Wendy. “He asked her if she was worried about anything and she told him that her geraniums aren’t doing well, they’ve changed her bus route and her old friend Mrs Kowalski is becoming forgetful, but everything else is just dandy.”

“Not the usual checklist for voluntary euthanasia,” I noted and Wendy agreed.

[1] Provided the children are your own. Visiting children are likely to enjoy the same activities so you can certainly set it up as entertainment but they usually expect to take their masterpieces home with them. (But not the mess: they’ll happily leave that for you.)

[2] My brother Matthew’s desk still sports the macaroni-encrusted pencil tin Jeremy made for him in kinder (and his nephew Ben has been giving Matthew home brew since he turned eighteen, but you can’t count that as children’s craft even though I suspect Ben was making beer before he was old enough to vote.)

[3] The level of skill and artistry does, however, influence what you do with the end product. My friend Jill’s third child was one of those kids who didn’t sit still from the day of his conception and the wrapping paper he made at the family craft sessions was so slipshod that Jill used it only for his grandmother’s presents, and even his grandmother eventually asked why she had to have William’s paper all the time.

[4] Many fourteen year olds can be trusted with power tools but Jill banned William from unsupervised use of even the vacuum cleaner until he reached the age of consent.

[5] Neither of them is married and, although Ben is pretty serious about Cassidy, Jack is only seventeen and hasn’t brought a girlfriend home yet at all. So it seems that Gertruda has more belief in Jack’s attractions that Ben does, because Ben ribs Jack mercilessly about his lack of success with the ladies, and blames it on Jack’s eclectic choice of hairstyles.

29 February – Leap Day

The meaning of Christmas (A Yuletide glossary)

Here are some words you will encounter in the festive season (including “festive”):

Advent: starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and is a time for churchgoers to prepare for the coming of Jesus (primarily with soul-searching rather than cookery).

Christmas: originally “Christ’s Mass”, a church service to celebrate Christ, but the word is now used to refer to the whole shebang, including the non-Christian elements.

Dinner: used to mean the main meal of the day, which was typically the midday meal (and sometimes still is in rural areas) but is usually the evening meal in urban Australia today. Hence Christmas dinner was at lunchtime in my country grandmother’s house and, since people like to hang on to their Christmas traditions, Christmas dinner was at lunchtime in my mother’s suburban house too.[1]

Epiphany: means “manifestation” in Greek, and was the day, twelve days after Christmas Day, when the magi finally arrived to see Jesus[2] and/or the day Jesus was baptised.

Festive: related to the festival… and therefore appropriate for anyone who celebrates any part of Christmas, regardless of their underlying beliefs. (This word is so useful that I’ve already used it twenty times in my blog so far and summer isn’t quite over.)

Magi: the three wise men (or kings) who followed the star to find the baby Jesus. If you want to get extra points in Christmas quizzes, mention that their names are Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar, they represent Arabia, the Orient and Africa and, in Spain, they are depicted riding a horse, a camel and an elephant.

Myrrh: one of the gifts the magi took to Jesus (the others being gold and frankincense). It is both a resin used as incense (as is frank-incense) and your best chance ever of stymying your opponent in Hangman.

Nativity: the birth of Jesus.

Noel: to English from Latin via Old French. It used to mean “day of birth” and it’s what the angels said when they did the birth announcement to the shepherds.

Season: The Australian Christmas season is, effectively, all of December, the last bit of November and a little of January too. If you want a 100% secular alternative to saying “Merry Christmas”, say “Season’s greetings” instead. (Mind you, since Christmas is for everyone, “Merry Christmas” is fine for everyone too.)

Xmas: a centuries old abbreviation of “Christmas” which replaces the “Christ” with the Greek letter X (chi) which is the Jesus’s initial in Greek.[3] There was a church campaign in the mid twentieth century to ban “Xmas” in order to “put the Christ back into Christmas” which sounds cute but was not academically sound.

 

2016-02-29
An X-ian church.

Yule: a midwinter festival celebrated by Germanic pagans (See 15 February.)

Yuletide: means “the time of Yule” and is effectively synonymous with “Christmas time” and “the season” (as in “’Tis the season to be jolly”).[4]

[1] My Nanna is the only person I know who called morning tea “lunch”, so meals in her household ran like this: breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon tea, tea, supper – there are enough names there for two days’ worth of meals and I can promise you there was enough food there for two days’ worth of meals too.

[2] Just as well they brought non-perishable presents: chocolate eclairs wouldn’t have survived the journey.

[3] “Christ” = “Χριστός” so does this make Jesus an X-Man?

[4] Which makes me wonder how you’re supposed to feel in the other seasons: melancholy in winter and peevish in autumn perhaps?